Bruce outwits old fox as United fall flat

Sunderland 0 Manchester United 0: Sunderland happy with point as delayed start unsettles Ferguson's side
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The Independent Football

Still Steve Bruce cannot beat his old manager and mentor Sir Alex Ferguson after 16 attempts, but this was one of the better efforts, giving him every reason for continuing satisfaction with Sunderland's progress. So far this season they have beaten Manchester City and held Arsenal and Liverpool, losing only one of seven League games.

Five of those have been draws and as Manchester United had drawn every one of their previous away games, a point apiece here was probably the statistical banker of the day. What was unexpected, and desperately disappointing for United's followers, was the unusually feeble nature of the performance. After a burst pipe in the dressing-room damaged their kit and caused a 20-minute delay to the kick–off, they could have been sunk by half-time.

Keeping a clean sheet for the second time in a week, with Rio Ferdinand at the heart of the defence, was one of the few consolations. By the finish we seemed to be looking at not so much a championship-winning side as a glimpse of tomorrow's world as Bebe, on his first Premier League appearance, and Javier Hernandez belatedly took the fight to Sunderland.

Whatever he said in private, Ferguson was benign in public. "Give credit to Sunderland," he said. "Our back four were fantastic and that's pleasing for me. We've had difficult away games but consistency at not losing is something we can take from them. I'm satisfied with a point."

The suspicion that United had sent out the wrong team in the wrong formation was nevertheless confirmed when tactics were changed with only 20 minutes played, and a substitute was introduced after that first half. Of the four players starting a League game for the first time this season, Michael Owen looked a fish out of water (dressing-room flood or not) in the middle of the midfield trio behind Federico Macheda and by the 65th minute both had been hauled off.

Less than a quarter of the game had passed before Ferguson, clearly concerned by the way things were progressing, moved Owen further forward and pulled Macheda and Anderson deeper to help his hard-pressed defensive midfielders Darren Fletcher and Paul Scholes. That pair were being outnumbered and outplayed by Sunderland, who deployed five across the middle.

All the goalmouth incident for a long time was created by the home side. In the 15th minute Lee Cattermole, not suspended for once, sent Steed Malbranque through with a glorious opportunity, which he spurned by failing to clip the ball either over or wide of Edwin van der Sar, the goalkeeping blocking with his foot.

Nemanja Vidic received a yellow card shortly afterwards, leaving himself a a long period to avoid a red one under pressure from Darren Bent, whom he had crudely fouled. Ferguson's tactical switch brought no greater threat from United until after Owen was removed at the interval. By that time they had survived two of the narrowest squeaks. Nedum Onuoha's jab at Malbranque's low cross forced Vidic to clear from close to his goalline and 10 minutes before half-time Bolo Zenden pinged a 20-yard drive against a post. United's one corner in the first half against Sunderland's seven accurately reflected the way of things and Owen paid the price. Within a couple of minutes his replacement, Dimitar Berbatov, knocked a miscued shot by Scholes into the net but he was rightly given offside. Once Hernandez joined him in attack, United's black shirts looked a little more menacing but the home side still made the better chances. In the 66th minute Al-Muhammadi set up Malbranque, whose drive was touched on to the top of the net by Van der Sar. A few minutes later United's cover down their right was non-existent as Titus Bramble sent Phil Bardsley away for a cross that Bent pulled wide.

Only in the last quarter of an hour did the visitors threaten to steal a victory. Nani's 30-yarder forced a worried Simon Mignolet to punch into the air and then Berbatov, played in by Hernandez, shot a foot wide. Sunderland nevertheless finished the stronger. Asamoah Gyan's scissors kick or Bent's header would have been worthy winning goals.

"We've performed really well against the big teams," Bruce said. "Now we've got to do it against the teams around us."

Attendance: 41,709

Referee: Chris Foy

Man of the match: Al-Muhammadi

Match rating: 6/10